Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #97 Jimmy Key

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The Yankees of the early ‘90s were an embarrassment, but in the ’92-’93 offseason, they added an old division rival to be their underrated lefty ace. With the help of Jimmy Key, the Yankees rose to respectability and by the time of his departure, World Series champions.

Name: Jimmy Key
Position: Starting pitcher (LHP)
Born: April 22, 1961 (Huntsville, AL)
Yankee Years: 1993-96
Primary number: 22
Yankee statistics: 48-23, 3.68 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 94 G, 94 GS, 604.1 IP, 400 K, 5 CG, 2 SHO, 80 ERA-, 85 FIP-, 13.5 rWAR, 12.1 fWAR

Biography

The Yankees of the 1980s typically had terrific hitters, but their aged pitching staff was their weak underbelly. The pitching went from mediocre to horrid from 1988-92, which unsurprisingly coincided with the sub-.500 nadir of the 14-year playoff drought. Prior to the '93 season though, savvy GM Gene "Stick" Michael signed Jimmy Key, an underrated lefty from the defending World Series champions who propelled Yankees pitching into an improved era of great success.

Blue Jay Days

Jimmy Key grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, where he played baseball throughout his youth and lettered in baseball at S.R. Butler Senior High School. He was a talented enough pitcher to be selected in the 10th round of the 1979 MLB Draft, by the Chicago White Sox 243rd overall, ahead of future aces like Orel Hershiser and Bud Black. However, Key declined Chicago's offer, and instead attended Clemson University to get an education and refine his craft with a solid baseball program led by National College Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Wilhelm. He actually excelled both on the mound and at the plate, where he often he served as a DH on his off-days, and he attained all-ACC honors at both pitcher and DH. After three years at Clemson, the six-year-old Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the third round of the '82 draft. Key accepted the offer. The 21-year-old Key was not long for the minors, pitching just 44 games across Rookie Ball, A-ball, Double-A, and Triple-A over the next two years before cracking Toronto's roster at the start of '84.

Key was used as a reliever in his rookie '84 campaign, and while he was not overly impressive, his manager Bobby Cox felt comfortable inserting him into the '85 starting rotation. The young southpaw rewarded his manager's faith with an All-Star season as Toronto shocked the American League with its first division title and a still-franchise-record 99 victories. Key made 32 starts and pitched 212 2/3 innings with a 3.00 ERA, 71 ERA-, and a five-win season by Baseball-Reference WAR. His first playoff appearance was not successful; he didn't pitch well in ALCS Game 2 at old Exhibition Stadium or Game 5 at Kauffman Stadium. Toronto blew a 3-1 series lead, falling to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in seven games.

Two years later, Key had his career year, as he finished runner-up to Roger Clemens in the AL Cy Young voting after leading the league in ERA at 2.76, pitching 261 innings to compile a 7.4 rWAR season. Key dazzled throughout the campaign with his superb control, also leading the league in WHIP at 1.06. His efforts were not enough to bring the Jays a second division title though; the Tigers beat them for the AL East by two games. Key battled occasional injuries and ineffectiveness over the next few seasons, although he did pitch six innings of three-run ball in Game 3 of the 1989 ALCS against the Oakland Athletics, handing the eventual champions their only playoff loss.

Key enjoyed his second All-Star season in '91, a 5.2 WAR season by FanGraphs standards thanks to a stingy 1.9 BB/9. Toronto won its third AL East title, but for the third time, they lost to the eventual champions in the ALCS (this time, the Twins). Although the Jays staked Key to an 2-0 lead with the series tied in Game 3, Key could not hold the slim margin, and Minnesota eventually won in the 10th inning on the strength of a surprising pinch-hit homer by third baseman Mike Pagliarulo off Mike Timlin. Toronto dropped the next two games, and they were again the bridesmaids to the World Series winners.

Toronto bounced back in '92 with a second consecutive division title and 96 wins. With the help of Key's future Yankee teammate David Cone, a trade deadline acquisition, manager Cito Gaston decided to employ a three-man rotation in the ALCS against Oakland with Cone, veteran Jack Morris, and statistical ace Juan Guzman. Key was in the bullpen and only made it into one game, but the Jays finally shed any allegations of "playoff chokers" to capture their first AL pennant in six games.

In the Fall Classic against the two-time National League champion Atlanta Braves, Gaston decided to start Key in Game 4 at the Skydome. The longtime Blue Jay was spectacular in his World Series debut, shutting down a strong offense in a 7 2/3 inning, one-run, five-hit victory that put Atlanta on the brink of elimination. In that start, he showed off his pickoff move, which was regarded as one the league's best, by catching basestealing threat Otis Nixon off first base in the first inning:

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The Jays lost Game 5 at home though, and they would need to win a road game at Fulton-County Stadium to claim their first championship. Down to their final out in Game 6 against dominant closer Tom Henke, "The Terminator," the Braves rallied to tie the score and send it to extra innings. With the score still tied and one out in the 10th, Gaston called on Key out of the bullpen to keep the Braves down. Key got the final two outs of the 10th, and became the winning pitcher in Toronto's first title after Dave Winfield's 11th inning two-run double. Key let a run in with two outs in the 11th, but Timlin got Nixon on a bunt to end the series and give Key his first World Series ring.

New York: A new challenge

Key reached free agency for the first time following the '92 season and sought a four-year deal. Although he was the second-best pitcher to ever suit up in Toronto at the time (until Roy Halladay), the Jays did not want to go four years for him. The Yankees had interest in Key, but preferred defending NL Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. They offered Maddux five years and $34 million, and even guaranteed a $9 million signing bonus to him when it was revealed that Maddux's preferred team, the Braves, had maneuvered and increased their offer to five years and $28 million. Maddux signed with Atlanta anyway, and the Yankees' second choice, Cone, declined to come to New York since he felt the organization was still unstable. Cone's worries had merit, as owner George Steinbrenner was set to return from a two-year suspension in March but was already reported to be causing confusion in Gene Michael's plans. Michael did like Key though, and the Yankees were able to lock him up four years and $17 million. Key was unperturbed by the front office disarray, noting "Things don't bother me. I guess that means I should fit New York pretty well."

Key was correct. He immediately became the ace of manager Buck Showalter's rotation that had just one solid starter left from their under-.500 '92 squad, Melido Perez. Key had an All-Star season with 236 2/3 innings pitched, a 70 ERA-, 82 FIP-, and a 6.2 rWAR season. He finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting, and the Yankees had a winning record for the first time since 1988 at 88-74. Key had sensed that the team was headed in the right direction before the season even began, remarking "The so-caled bad guys were getting weeded out. I just felt like Buck had gotten the organization going in the right direction." Behind a revitalized core that included veteran Yankee captain Don Mattingly, Key's fellow new Yankees Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs, and Jim Abbott, and budding young talent like Bernie Williams, Mike Stanley, and Jim Leyritz, the Bronx Bombers finished in third place. Key's old team won their third straight division title and became back-to-back World Series champions, but he would not end his career with just the one World Series ring.

Key turned 33 in '94 and again turned in an All-Star campaign for the Yankees, who suddenly emerged as the American League's best team. After his last start on August 10, Key had a four-WAR season already, a 69 ERA-, and the Yankees were 28 games above .500, tops in the AL. It looked like Mattingly might finally get his first playoff appearance after a long wait, but it was not meant to be. The Players' Strike ended the season and cancelled the postseason, devastating Yankees fans. Key finished behind Cone for the AL Cy Young for the second runner-up finish of his career, but it hardly seemed to matter.

When the strike ended and players prepared for a shortened 144-game season in '95, many thought the Yankees would again be a difficult foe to manage. They added former Cy Young winner "Black Jack" McDowell to their rotation to complement Key, and almost everyone was back from the '94 team that did so well. Unfortunately, Key's season lasted just five starts. He was pummeled by the Blue Jays and Indians on May 11th and 16th, and after cutting an off-day throwing session short at 40 pitches due to arm pain, he was put on the disabled list with tendonitis. The injury turned out to be much worse than tendonitis--Key needed left rotator cuff surgery, the fourth major operation on his left arm in his career. Shoulder surgeries have always had a difficult recovery process, and Key faced a long road of rehab ahead while his team traded for Cone and won the AL Wild Card before losing in the ALDS.

1996: The culmination

Key reported to Spring Training in '96 to a new manager, Joe Torre, and a different-looking starting rotation. Cone re-signed with the Yankees, Kenny Rogers joined him, and '95 rookie Andy Pettitte was there as well. (Key would be a mentor to the young lefty, helping him establish his terrific pickoff move and a presence on the mound.) McDowell and Abbott were gone, and Perez and Scott Kamieniecki were injured. Former Mets phenom Dwight Gooden reported to camp as well. Beyond Cone, there were question marks everywhere, and those question marks only became bolder when Cone needed surgery to remove a life-threatening aneurysm in his pitching arm. Key had to negotiate with his left shoulder to ensure it was working fine, applying heat to ease tightness in his shoulder between every inning. Nonetheless, Key remained a tough pitcher:

On the mound, Jimmy Key was an executioner, killing batters softly. Key had been a good hitter in college at Clemson and Oriole B.J. Surhoff says that "allowed him to understand the psyche of the hitters." Key climbed into the mind of his opponents; he knew hitters never wanted to look foolish by letting one of his oh-so-hittable fastballs pass. That left them susceptible to his devastating changeup... Buck Showalter marveled at the guts Key displayed to throw a pitch that delectably slow two, three, four times in a row to a hitter... New York did not bother him. Big games did not bother him. You got the feeling Jimmy Key would pitch the same game in downtown Beirut during shelling at County Stadium in May with 5,000 people in the crowd.

He ended up on the disabled list a couple times, but he only missed about four starts throughout the season, pitching to a slightly above-average 4.68 ERA and 96 ERA- in 30 starts during a big year for offense. Key's long rehab paid off, as the Yankees won 92 games and their first division title since 1981. Key only allowed two runs in five innings in his ALDS Game 3 start against the Texas Rangers, but the Yankees needed a two-run ninth inning rally to take the 2-1 series lead. They won that series the next day, and Key earned another Game 3 start in the ALCS against the division rival Baltimore Orioles. The O's had rebounded from a tough Game 1 loss to take Game 2 at Yankee Stadium on the strength of David Wells's pitching, and they had home-field advantage at Camden Yards for the next three games. The Yankees had not lost in Baltimore all year long, but it was still not a situation they wanted to face. Key started against possibly the O's best pitcher in Mike Mussina, and got off to a rough start as Todd Zeile cracked a two-run homer on a bad curveball. Key shook it off, ditched the curve, and allowed just one hit to the powerful Orioles offense the rest of the way in an eight-inning gem. The Yankees scored four in the eighth partly thanks to a misplay by Zeile at third, and they took a 2-1 lead in the series. Two victories in Baltimore later, Key was off to his second World Series.

Pettitte was roughed up in the first game by the defending World Series champion Braves, and Key was outpitched by Maddux in Game 2. The Yankees were in an 0-2 hole going to Atlanta, but they stunned the baseball world by winning three in a row and returning to New York with a 3-2 series lead. It was up to Key to close out the Braves in what would be his final start in New York.

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Key worked in and out of trouble to throw three scoreless innings while the Yankees plated three runs in the bottom of the third against Maddux, led by a surprising RBI triple from Maddux's old Cubs catcher, Joe Girardi. Key loaded the bases in the fourth with one out and walked Jermaine Dye to cut the score to 3-1. He now faced former NL MVP Terry Pendleton, who could tie the game up with a single up the middle, or at least make it a one-run game with a fly ball. In possibly his biggest moment as a Yankee, Key pursued a different scenario:

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Rookie of the Year shortstop Derek Jeter completed the 6-6-3 double play and the inning was suddenly over. Key threw a scoreless fifth, and after a leadoff ground-rule double by Chipper Jones in the sixth, he pitched to his former Blue Jay teammate, Fred McGriff. The "Crime Dog" hit 493 homers in his career, 28 in '96, and five in the playoffs thus far. He could easily tie it with one swing, but Key got McGriff to ground out. Torre called on David Weather to relieve him, and Key departed the mound at Yankee Stadium for the last time in pinstripes. Weathers, Graeme Lloyd, dominant setup man Mariano Rivera, and World Series MVP closer John Wetteland closed out the Braves to give the Yankees their 23rd World Series title.

The lefty did depart the Yankees after the season for two more years in the big leagues with the Orioles team that he dominated in the ALCS. He had one more strong year in '97 for the last Orioles team to win the AL East, but he finished two games shy of a third World Series appearance, as the Indians ousted the Orioles in a six-game ALCS. In '98, Key made just 11 starts and threw 79 1/3 innings to a 93 ERA- (mostly out of the bullpen), then called it quits after the season.

Jimmy Key was not an all-time great pitcher, but he was almost exactly what the Yankees needed him to be when they signed him to a four-year deal prior to the '93 season. Key was the ace of two contending teams in '93 and '94, then rebounded from an injury-shortened '95 to have a comeback season in '96 as the Yankees broke their World Series drought with their first championship in 18 years. Fans of those teams will always remember Key as a consummate professional and terrific pitcher.

Andrew's rank: 91

Tanya's rank: N/A

Community's rank: 78

Avg. WAR rank: 97.5

Season Stats

Year

Age

Tm

W

L

ERA

FIP

G

GS

CG

SHO

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

IBB

SO

HBP

BK

WP

ERA-

FIP-

rWAR

fWAR

1993

32

NYY

18

6

3.00

3.51

34

34

4

2

236.2

219

84

79

26

43

1

173

1

0

3

70

82

6.2

4.9

1994

33

NYY

17

4

3.27

3.73

25

25

1

0

168.0

177

68

61

10

52

0

97

3

1

8

69

80

4.4

3.9

1995

34

NYY

1

2

5.64

4.06

5

5

0

0

30.1

40

20

19

3

6

1

14

0

0

1

124

90

0.0

0.5

1996

35

NYY

12

11

4.68

4.48

30

30

0

0

169.1

171

93

88

21

58

1

116

2

0

2

96

94

2.9

2.7

NYY (4 years)

48

23

3.68

3.87

94

94

5

2

604.1

607

265

247

60

159

3

400

6

1

14

80

85

13.5

12.1

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Curry, Jack. New York Times

Donnelly, Chris. Baseball's Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2010

Jimmy Key

Olney, Buster. The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty. New York: Rodale, 2006.

1996 World Series Game 6 (full)

Other Top 100 Yankees

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